|Life in the times before air-conditioning
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Majlis and harim
The house was functionally divided in two parts: usually near the entrance there was the majlis, the reception room for male visitors, which was also the best room in the house, a showroom of the family’s wealth to the neighbours.
You will still find the majlis in most Arabic homes. Many have changed the furniture there to western style sofas, but in many homes there are the traditional pillows along the sidewalls of the room – sitting on them for hours at the same time trying not to point your sole at anybody can be rather demanding to your feet – at least for those of us who are more used to normal chairs like I am.
So much so that after a long dinner you might need a helping hand to get back to your numb feet (yes, you eat dinner sitting on the floor with the food being served at floor level, preferably with your right hand – no need for knives and forks here!).
The majlis was strictly separate from the rest of the house, the harim, which was the domain of the women. It was forbidden for all men except those of the family to enter this part of the house, which is the case even nowadays.
Primary rooms were placed on the north side of the house so that they weren’t directly in contact with the sunshine.
In old two-storey houses you will see one part of the house projecting out from the rest, usually on the back, with a hole in the floor. You guessed it, this is the washroom.
Like in medieval towns in Europe, for hygienic reasons all the sewage was led out from the building. Before the sewerage system it all stayed there of course – it must have been an unforgettable experience to walk on the side alleys during the hot summer days....
Everyone was an architect
Houses weren’t planned much beforehand; instead they were expanded when necessary (again, a striking difference with modern houses, which lack the more organic nature of their randomly built predecessors).
Because of the use of local materials everyone knew what to do and how to do it; nowadays you need the skills of highly educated professionals who use hi-tech building materials.
Importance of the family
The family is very important to the Arab people. Usually the whole family – parents, children, their spouses, their children, etc – lived in the same house sharing all the rooms, with the bedrooms as their only private, personal spaces. And if not in the same house, the children would still live in the house next door.
A typical Arabic household was really a small, self-sufficient community, well suited to manage in the harsh environment.
A typical feature of the old towns was the narrow winding alleys, in comparison to the modern, six-lane highways running through the cities in the Gulf.
Those towns were made for pedestrians with no parking problems and traffic jams – just drive through the old souk in Muharraq and try to find a parking place and you’ll get the idea.
However, the main reason for the buildings to be built so close to each other was that then they provided much more shadow to the streets in between, thus easing the oppressive heat.
So you can see, the cities of yesterday were built in total harmony with the surrounding environment and the requirements of Islamic culture.
Survival of the fittest
Thanks to the demands of modern times there are regrettably few of those old, beautiful houses left, and even the ones surviving are often neglected and thus falling apart.
There is always a fear that a new high-rise building or shopping mall will take the place of the old-timers. Money talks, just as it does anywhere else in the world.
Fortunately, however, there is an increasing interest in preserving the past, the cultural heritage in which the old buildings have a major role.